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What is a Set List?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A set list or setlist is a list of songs which a musical artist or band plans to perform. The set list compiles the songs in order so that everyone associated with the performance knows what to expect, from the musicians on stage to the technicians who handle the set changes. People may also use the term more generally to refer to the songs an artist plays in particular performance, rather than to the literal document which spells out the play order.

There are a number of considerations to take into account when compiling a set list. Some artists use the same list throughout a tour, while others will change it every evening or in each venue. Most try to include a list of popular hits along with newer pieces, and it may close the set list with a popular anthem to energize concert goers as they get ready to leave. When pulling the list of songs together, the musician or musicians think about the mood of each song, and the direction that they want to pull the concert in.

Some other considerations are technical. If the performance includes special effects, dancing, and other forms of entertainment, the set list may be tailored to accommodate this. Issues like warmup time for specific instruments or musicians may need to be addressed as well, and in some cases, a venue may be able to make specific requests, such as omissions or inclusions of particular songs. The set list is usually kept secret from the public so that people will not know what to expect.

Some bands improvise set lists on the fly, responding to the mood of the audience and the feel of the evening. Jazz bands in particular are famous for this, as jazz is an improvisational music form to begin with. More structured forms of music such as classical music usually require a set list, and pop artists often use set lists because they require support, and their technicians need to be prepared for each song ahead of time. A set list also includes a note of which songs will be performed if an encore is requested.

Physical set lists sometimes turn out to be collectors' items. Hand-printed set lists scribbled out by members of the band are in hot demand among fans, but even printed generic set lists may become valuable because they were used on or near the stage, and are therefore associated with live performance. People periodically sell set lists they have collected, and musicians and support crews will sometimes give these documents away to fans after a concert is over, if asked.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By mrwormy — On Jul 22, 2014

I saw the Rolling Stones' 2014 set list online a few days ago, and it looks almost the same at every venue. They allow fans to vote for one lesser known song to be added to the set list, then they end the show with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Satisfaction". The set list I saw was a mixture of their greatest hits and some songs from their latest album.

By Cageybird — On Jul 21, 2014

I know that some performers have to abide by very strict time limits, so they will change their set list to make sure they don't run late or finish too early. This happens a lot during festivals with a lot of acts. The first group might run 15 minutes over their time, so the second group must cut one or two songs from its set list. Everyone wants to leave room for the most popular act to close out the show.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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